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Harnessing the genomics revolution

Jun 11,2016 - Last updated at Jun 11,2016

Just 13 years after the successful completion of the Human Genome Project, the power of genomics applications to spur innovation is already becoming apparent.

Indeed, though the genomics revolution is just getting under way, it is becoming a transformative agent in the global economy — one that promises to bring far-reaching social and environmental benefits.

In the United States alone, the $3.8 billion in public funds invested in the Human Genome Project has already generated close to $1 trillion in economic returns and more than 300,000 jobs

According to the OECD, genomics will become a central component of many economic sectors, including healthcare, the environment, agriculture, animal health, biotechnology, alternative energy, forensics, justice and security.

With the pace of innovation continuing to accelerate, this prediction will likely be fulfilled even sooner than anticipated.

The area where genomics-driven innovations have attracted the most attention is health.

Rapid progress towards truly “personalised medicine” is occurring, with patients’ DNA profiles being translated into more individualised, predictive and preventive medical care.

Already, studies to identify genes associated with common diseases — including some that represent significant health, economic and social burdens, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity — are beginning to enable doctors to use patient DNA information to inform clinical care.

And researchers are identifying genetic variations that influence the effects of drugs, allowing safer and more effective administration of medication to manage pain and treat some cancers, as well as cardiovascular and psychiatric diseases.

Taking these developments a step further, the Precision Medicine Initiative, launched in the US last year, is pursuing innovative trials of targeted drugs for adult and paediatric cancers, introducing customised combination therapies, and honing its understanding of drug resistance.

In the longer term, the project aims to create a research cohort of more than a million volunteers whose shared genetic data, biological samples, and lifestyle information will form the foundation for precision medicine in a large number of human diseases.

But healthcare is far from the only area influenced by the genomics-driven revolution.

There have been game-changing developments in other fields as well, many with proven potential to help address global challenges, such as ensuring food security and safeguarding the environment in the face of a rapidly growing global population, expected to reach 9.6 billion in 35 years.

Selection of high-value traits using genomics is giving farmers, and the food industry in general, the tools to produce more and better foods.

Rice crops in Southeast Asia, for example, can now be flood-resistant. Beef, dairy, and swine herds produce higher output. The burgeoning fishery and aquaculture sector is benefiting from species with better yields and greater resistance to disease and stress.

Moreover, by providing detailed information on biodiversity and the interactions within ecosystems, genomics is driving the development of innovative environmental-protection strategies.

Forests are a prime example. By broadening our understanding of commercially valuable traits, such as insect resistance, wood quality, growth rates, and adaptation to climate change, genomics has helped to improve the sustainability of tree breeding and forest management.

Canadian and Chinese researchers are also using genomic analysis of the microbial communities living in hydrocarbon deposits to develop new bioprocesses that will make oil and gas extraction greener, by enhancing resource recovery, reducing water and energy use, and minimising greenhouse-gas emissions.

The promise of genomics is seemingly limitless. But if that promise is to be fulfilled, major challenges must be overcome. In healthcare, in particular, we need to continue generating solid evidence of the value of moving personalised medicine into routine practice.

Furthermore, rigorous economic analyses are needed to guide policies on healthcare coverage and reimbursement.

Above all, important questions surrounding patient privacy, technology access, reporting of incidental findings, discrimination and counselling must be answered, so that thoughtful and forward-looking public policies can be devised.

To this end, mechanisms to ensure broad public discussion and participation must be strengthened.

Even at this early stage, it is clear that genomics is set to transform science and technology and sustain a wave of far-reaching innovation. 

Now is the time for countries and regions to embrace genomics research and technologies, and to start translating them into effective solutions to major global, regional and local challenges.



The writer, professor of genomic medicine, adjunct professor of epidemiology, and program director of genomic medicine and bioeconomy at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, is executive president at Global Biotech Consulting Group. ©Project Syndicate, 2016.

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